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Emigrant Wilderness a backpacker’s Disneyland

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Emigrant Wilderness a backpacker’s Disneyland

Stanislaus County residents Dan and Lee Clipper take a view of a breath-taking spot on the trail from the Gianelli trailhead to Powell Lake after arriving in the evening. The hike to the lake takes...

JEFF BENZIGER/209 Health & Wellness


POSTED July 24, 2012 6:27 p.m.

There is no better time of year to head to the high country with a backpack and enjoy the spectacular offering of nature in the Sierra Nevada, which is a virtual hiker’s Disneyland.

The backpacking experience in the nearby Emigrant Wilderness of the Stanislaus National Forest offers an emotional cleansing that clears the junk of civilized life out of your psyche, particularly as you sit in absolute silence on a granite staircase of rock as you gaze across a Valley where there are no signs of civilization.

Besides challenging the body, hikers to Emigrant Wilderness can find a sense of wonder and awe as they see things nobody can see from a car. This area was deemed impassable by early-day pioneers who trekked into California in wagon trains from the east in search of gold. Pioneers attempted to cut a road through the area – not far from Pinecrest – in 1852 but found the craggy landscape too formidable even after dismantling wagons and lowering them over precipices with rope. The West Walker-Sonora road was evaluated by one Major John Ebbets who was exploring for a possible railroad line but when he saw the dead animals and broken wagons said: “This route is the worst that could be found ... I advise no emigrant to take it.”

That first attempt to build a road to Sonora from the Walker River area of Nevada is the same ground that hikers take into Powell Lake and Chewing Gum Lake, which are accessible from the Gianelli trailhead. But before one gets to the trailhead, one must travel miles on a dirt and gravel road off of Crabtree Road (turn left off of Highway 120 before reaching Pinecrest). Before arriving at the trailhead, however, make sure to obtain a free wilderness permit from the U.S. Forest Service office (19777 Greenley Road, Sonora, CA (209) 532-3671).

Before deciding to backpack, each person needs to make sure they’re up to the physical challenge. Hikers need to borrow or purchase required gear, such as a good pack, pads, small tent, bedding, lighter weight foods, a small water filtration pump, a portable gas burner, first aid kit, bug repellent, and matches as well as good hiker boots or sneakers. A hiking friend or two is essential.

Be prepared to “rough it” on your trip; there are no bathrooms and no potable water sources, which means one must be comfortable in taking care of business in the wild. Hikers find many of the lakes to be nice for a dip and to wash off the trail dust and get refreshed for hours more of hiking.

Emigrant Wilderness offers a number of spectacular scenic lakes, including Upper Wire, Lower Wire, Y Meadow, Pie, Piute, Gem, Jewelry, Deer, Upper Buck, Emigrant, Blackbird, Maxwell, Huckleberry, Latora, Frog, Fisher, Cow Meadow, Wood, and Grouse Lakes and many more. How many you wish to see depends on ambition, time and physical stamina.

A sample of a good trip is a three-day, two-night, 14-mile trek from the Crabtree trailhead to Camp Lake, Piute Meadow, Grouse Lake, and Pine Valley. Or in three days and two nights, one can hike the 10-mile trail from Gianelli trailhead to Powell Lake, Lake Valley, Chewing Gum Lake, and Whitesides Meadow. A more ambitious trip of 25 miles takes four days and three nights but takes the hiker from Gianelli trailhead to Powell Lake, Upper Relief Lake, Granite Dome and Y Meadow Lake.

There are certainly shorter options for the less ambitious, including a two-day, one-night trip from Gianelli Cabin trailhead to Powell.

Bears are usually not an issue in Emigrant, nor are crowds, making it a great place to get away from it all. A hike of two to five miles can take the hiker from his car to a seemingly desolate place in a seemingly congested California. In fact, at times the only sign of the outside world are vapor trails of airliners overhead. At times the silence of the wilderness is deafening.

Be safe and enjoy!

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